I snapped the photo above in Place Jacques Cartier a few days back. It is a fire pit, one of several located near Rue de la Commune and intended to provide a place to warm up for all those out enjoying the many and diverse activities on-going throughout the Old Port and Old Montreal this winter. It was a quaint scene, doubtless intended to remind tourists of our hearty Colonial past. Nearby, a calÃ¨che driver enrobed in a buffalo hide stood next to his massive, steaming steed, educating passersby that his was the original Uber. Adirondack chairs of fresh-cut pine surrounded the flaming hearths. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.
While the ban is still two years off, I was a touch perplexed. This was all happening within eyesight of City Hall and both major parties seem to be really gung-ho on expediting the ban. Wouldn’t they have at least thought about ensuring there aren’t any fire pits at public events in the lead-up? What kind of message does this send to the people? Are they bad for the environment or can fireplaces distinguish between private use and public? Perhaps burning wood emits less particulate in the context of being decorations to support our tourism industry?
Banning things is, unfortunately, just about the only thing municipal and provincial governments seem to be good at these days. In addition to the fireplace ban, the province recently decided to ban cigarettes from outdoor patios and e-cigarettes from anywhere indoors. E-cigarettes, by their very definition, do not involve any burning tobacco whatsoever.
The bans are all intended to improve air quality and make us healthier, but they’re illogical when put in context of what’s causing far, far worse air pollution. Even if everyone in Montreal decided to light up a smoke and their fireplaces simultaneously, the pollution still wouldn’t even come close to what’s produced by all the cars, trucks, busses and airplanes going in and out of our city every single day. You and everyone else living in this city could get cracking on being pack-a-day smokers for the rest your lives and it will wouldn’t come close.
This type of legislation tends to get near unanimous approval from other politicians and, even though people do grumble and complain these bans are invasive and unnecessary, it’s unlikely public opposition will be so strong there’ll be any street protests.
In other words, it’s a safe bet everyone will go along with the plan and whomever’s in power looks like they’re doing something productive.
Banning cars and trucks, no matter how effective a solution to the air-quality and smog problem, would be political suicide. So that’s not going to happen.
It would also be great if all the highway trenches were covered over too, given much of our local smog is generated by ground-up salt and sand used to clear the streets after snowstorms. Covering over the Decarie and Ville-Marie Expressways wouldn’t just ensure they’d be permanently clear and unaffected by the elements, but further wouldn’t require snow clearance. And the exhaust within can be sucked out and cleaned too.
But in order for any of this to be possible, we have to get comfortable with the knowledge small, bandaid feel-good solutions won’t do an iota of good to improve our local environment and cut down on smog.
The idea that your fireplace is a major contributor to environmental degradation is, apparently, not even really taken seriously by whichever city department was responsible for setting up these hearths.
This here’s a photo of what Montreal looked like back in the early 1930s.
To situate yourself, first you’re looking ‘Montreal east’ – that’s the Jacques-Cartier Bridge under construction, and by my guess I think the airplane was flying near the intersection of Rue de la Montagne and Boulevard Saint-Jacques, or Mountain and St. James as it was colloquially referred to back then.
This is Montreal right before the Depression really began to be felt in Canada, and right after about fifty years of considerable and near constant economic growth for our city.
This is Montreal back when Canada had but one metropolis.
This is Montreal back when it defined what metropolis meant in the Canadian context.
If you stare at this photo long enough you’ll see all that remains, and there’s a lot all things considered.
But consider as well that just about everything in the lower half of the photo is gone.
In the contrast you can see the effect of monumental construction projects and just how much space is actually eaten up by the Ville-Marie Expressway.
The depopulation of the central core of our city is clear, but so too is the amount of space we demand on an individual level also glaringly apparent. Back in the 1930s there was a lot more happening, so much more life, packed tighter together. At the top of the picture is more-or-less the limit of the ‘urban’ montreal of the day, and it wouldn’t have extended much father in other directions either.
This is back when NDG was the suburbs.
Montreal’s population was recorded at just under one million people in 1931, and you can imagine the majority of those people would have lived and worked in the area photographed above.
Montreal witnessed a steady decline in population between 1971 and 2001, from our all-time high of 1,766,000 to 1,583,000 at the start of the new millennium. The city lost 183,000 people, largely to suburbanization, during that thirty-year period. Concurrently, the city deindustrialized (as other major North American cities did at the time) and gave up considerable tracts of land to highways and parking lots, facilitating the new white collar workers who worked in the new corporate office towers of the urban core.
It’s unfortunate, because we’ll never have this kind of urban density again, and as a consequence I doubt we’ll ever be able to truly replicate the urban lifestyle aesthetic of our first metropolitan era.
Hand-in-hand with the redevelopment of Dorchester came the construction of a major east-west highway, today known as the Ville-Marie Expressway. The Ville-Marie was a success in one manner of thinking because so much of it was put underground (as opposed to above ground, such as Metropolitan Boulevard north of the mountain), meaning it could be eventually covered over again. Unfortunately this took a lot longer and had a more deleterious effect than city planners had imagined. In the 1960s, when planning and construction of the Ville-Marie began, there was this idea, as you can see in the above rendering, that the new ‘sunken’ highway would take the form of a post-modern canal, stimulating new growth immediately next to it. This didn’t really happen as developers were disinclined to build right next to an open highway trench. Moreover, planners back in the 1960s failed to realize just how unappealing an open highway trench would actually be for all the people walking around above.
This is what the Ville-Marie looked like right before the first serious efforts to recover the lost land actually began. Notice that parts weren’t completely open – the tunnel roof is visible – but that for whatever reason no efforts had been made to reclaim this space. This would change at the start of the new century with the planned redesign of Victoria Square and the development of the Quartier Internationale.
During 2002-2003 the square was completely redesigned, concurrently with the construction of the CDP Capital Centre, the enlargement of the Palais des CongrÃ¨s and the construction of Place Riopelle between the two. All of this was located atop the tunnel. The CDP Capital Centre is particularly impressive (and I’d encourage you to visit it during normal business hours) as the architect designed a building that sits atop the tunnel but doesn’t place any weight on it – the atrium is in fact located directly above the tunnel, with the weight of the building pushed off on to either side.
At around the same time, the Underground City was extended to connect the once separate eastern and western axes through this area. Arguably the most impressive and least used parts of the RÃ‰SO can be found here.
So clearly it is possible to build on top of the tunnel/trench.
The question comes down to cost.
This is the remaining open part of the Ville-Marie Expressway, between the new CHUM superhospital and the Palais des CongrÃ¨s. As you can see, it’s a considerable amount of space. Mayor Denis Coderre wants to build a park atop the highway trench on the easternmost portion. Transport Quebec, the provincial transport ministry, has said, unequivocally, no. They argue it will cost too much without giving any idea as to what they think it will cost.
This is called ‘convenient political obstructionism. It isn’t the plan they don’t like, it’s that the Mayor of Montreal is planning it and, for reasons that still make no sense to me, a highway used almost exclusively by Montrealers is outside the jurisdiction of City Hall.
And as to the other two-thirds of the trench, well, there’s enough space here to build an entirely new Palais des CongrÃ¨s (not that I’d advocate for another convention centre in the same space, but simply to illustrate just how much area we’re actually talking about).
It strikes me as odd the city, province and various private developers couldn’t get together and devise a plan to cover over this remaining section. If costs are as prohibitive as the province seems to believe, then perhaps the recovering job ought to be a public-private partnership. Get private developers to front part of the cost so that they can get the rights to build above. Something tells me this would be an excellent location both for office towers and condominiums, given that this open hole happens to be in the middle of just about everything. I can imagine living and working here would appeal to a lot of people.
And just in case there’s any doubt it can be done, it has been done before. The Agora pictured above is probably one of our city’s least used (and enigmatic) public spaces because it’s terribly uninviting. Moreover, due to its design and the relative poverty of the surrounding area for far too many years, it was taken over by local homeless people. My first apartment in Montreal was right in front of it and throughout the summer the entirety of Viger Square was a makeshift homeless campground. The single biggest problem with the public spaces created above the Ville-Marie in the late 1970s and early 1980s is that lines of sight across the spaces are blocked by walls and hedges.
I don’t want to see the Agora torn down because I think it might work very well in another part of town, but the fact remains, these places aren’t being used as best they can.
What I’d like to see is large, green, urban parks with clear sight lines across, much like Viger Square before it was demolished to excavate for the Ville-Marie. Given the new housing built in the area in the last decade, I think it would be wiser to create a more traditional green space in this area and move the post-modern agora a little closer to the city centre. I think the agora would work much better in an area in which thru-traffic can be guaranteed and stimulated. This is simply impossible where it currently stands largely because it’s bounded by two major boulevards and there’s not much going on in its current location to stimulate the much needed ‘ballet of the streets’.
All that said – this is our city, our highway, our public spaces and ultimately our problem. The effort to remove the scar left by our efforts to modernize fifty some-odd years ago has only been partially achieved. In order to build a more cohesive city, and further to beautify it and increase population density, we must be given the tools to be masters of our own domain.
Same story schools and hospitals; the city can’t do anything to help the fact that the CSDM has to immediately close 82 schools due to contamination. The school board deals with the province on such matters. And the city can’t be expected to do anything about our hospitals – which remain open, which will be closed, who the buildings are sold to and how they’re repurposed. Nada. The city of Montreal has no say in any of it.
Our municipal politicians, of all stripes, suffer the consequences. All too often they are blamed directly for all the problems we have on these and other fronts. Because local politicians – those closest to the people – are impotent to effect any lasting change to the operational status quo, they become disinterested at best and corrupt at worst.
And the people, realizing that which is supposed to be the most accessible level of government is in fact nothing more than a hindrance to the political process, disengage from said process.
Disenfranchisement via political impotence.
At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter who you happen to be aligned with because this city is political poison to both the current provincial and federal governments. They know they can’t win here so they sew the seeds of discord in an attempt to divide and conquer the people of this city. We have no ‘pull’ for the moment, and given the Duplessis-like tactics of both levels of government we’re going to continue being pushed around, with development dictated to us.
Unless of course we do something about it.
Let’s get back to the details that spurred this article, for a moment.
Cover a highway, build a park. What could possibly go wrong? Two political rivals cooperating to build something bigger and better than themselves.
So when the transport minister told his press handler to fire off an email to shoot down a fundamentally good idea (and I mean good for our local democracy, environment, urban quality-of-life good) I can’t help but imagine it was done to remind the mayor of his place, of the limits of his political authority. Maybe there was more to it than that.
We’re Canadian after all… clearly the politics of fear work here just as well as anywhere else.
Unfortunately for the people who live here and drive on our roads, anything and everything to do with the biggest and most important ones are all conveniently outside our jurisdiction.
Keep this in mind as traffic grinds to a halt with the redesign of the Turcot Interchange. It’s a provincial area of jurisdiction. Even if we had a better idea, we can doing about it. Those aren’t city streets.
Our highways and our bridges aren’t actually ‘our own’. You’d think a city of nearly two million people could take care of such things by itself – and indeed we once did.
But over time we have had responsibilities taken away from us, and when you lose those your rights aren’t far behind.
It’s not just that the city of Montreal lacks responsibility in key areas, it’s that we don’t have the right to be involved, by provincial decree.
It wasn’t always the case, we were once a little more autonomous, though only because certain political and social circles happened to once interact here.
Our fall from our former glory as a metropolis is not a language issue or a culture issue, it’s mostly a taxation and efficiency issue.
We were once in charge of our fate and now legislation exists that cripples our city’s ability to perform and succeed. Our failures are quite simply not our own – they are imposed. The people of the city of Montreal – the citizens of Montreal – must have control over all key areas of municipal governance and expected public services. We can manage our own house. We must become masters of our own domain.
The future political divide in this province is not between languages or culture or where you were born. It is between Montreal, as it is and for its own sake, in opposition to a Quebec that feels it must define its culture through legislation. Montreal would simply prefer to be left alone, we are not interested in having our culture, our identity, screwed around with.